When the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million deal last spring, they also agreed to a covenant with their fans — the franchise would do everything it had to move forward to guarantee a winner.
That pledge lasted less than one year.
After a promising start this winter — landing free agents Didi Gregorius and Zack Wheeler — owner John Middleton snapped shut the vault. Despite the club’s obvious needs at starting pitcher, relief, and outfield, GM Matt Klentak made no trades and watched idly as the parade of notable free agents passed by.
And so, as Spring Training draws close, we shudder at the specter of entering another season watching Vince Velasquez sweating away on the mound. Be ready now for that 41-pitch third inning.
The goal, it appears, is for Middleton to keep payroll under baseball’s $208 million luxury tax threshold (the Phils are now around $202 million). The financial penalty for exceeding it works out to a few cigars for the local tobacco tycoon.
But here’s the rub: Once you obligate roughly one-sixth of that amount annually to Harper, you’re essentially committed to busting through the tax threshold. You’re already bonded to big-spending — you can’t try to make it up by playing cheap at other positions.
You don’t buy the Mona Lisa and surround it with paint-by-number artwork.
But that’s where the Phillies are right now. After last season’s pitching staff allowed a franchise-record 258 homers, management is ready to move into 2020 with most of those gopher ballers still on the mound.
Beyond signing Wheeler, they invested nothing in the rotation, praying that new pitching coach Bryan Price can unlock something in the brains of Velasquez and Nick Pivetta.
This week, Klentak finally altered his bullpen by shopping in the scratch-and-dent aisle. He offered invites to a gaggle of has-beens and never-weres, including a sore-armed righty (Drew Storen) who hasn’t pitched in the bigs since 2017 and another (Bud Norris) who last made news for bullying younger teammates in St. Louis back in 2018.
I understand the concept of no-risk, medium-reward moves this time of year. Maybe Price and new manager Joe Girardi (the club’s best offseason addition) can find a gem among the rubble.
But when the 2020 plan is praying Jake Arrieta finds his way back from oblivion and the aforementioned underachievers suddenly mature — well, color me skeptical.
Frugality works only when your organization has a pipeline of talent rising up. But despite President Andy McPhail’s boast last October that the farm system is chock full of future stars, the Phils currently have just one youngster (3B Alec Bohm) listed among the top-80 of the official MLB Pipeline list.
While the Phils dithered through the offseason, their NL East rivals acted. The Braves (already a superior team) bolstered their bullpen, added cleanup hitter Marcel Ozuna, and signed Cole Hamels. Hmm, I wonder if Hamels might have been useful in red pinstripes.
The newest Caesars Palace odds out of Vegas have the Phils over/under at 85.5 wins. That’s fourth-best in the NL East, behind even the screwed-up Mets.
From here, that looks about right. It has to be discouraging to the local fan base, which has waited since 2011 for this franchise to field a contender.
Signing Harper was a sign that ownership was equally weary of waiting. The vow was that Middleton and Co. would go as far as needed to build a winner around the marquee right fielder.
What’s happened this offseason is a betrayal of that promise.